Tackling Teacher Burnout, Demoralization and Self-Care

As education has evolved over the years, teachers have had to adapt to everything from changes in computer and smart phone technology, apps and social media to constantly changing grading practices and a new focus on social and emotional learning.

It should be no surprise that roughly 270,232 educators leave the profession annually (National Center for Education Statistics).

Teacher burnout and demoralization is an issue that must be addressed. Is there anything we can do to help educators cope with and manage tough situations in this ever-evolving field of education?

The SHAPE America Twitter Chat Task Force thought it was time to tackle this question and discuss teacher burnout, demoralization and self-care.

The March #SHAPEHealthEd Twitter Chat focused on this topic and more — and it was no surprise that it had one of the highest participation rates of any #SHAPEHealthEd Twitter chat.

We were very fortunate to have four wonderful panelists: Mary Jo Geddes (High School Health & PE Teacher from Kentucky); Kait Hall (2016 IAHPERD TOY Young Professional Health Educator); Judy LoBianco (SHAPE America Past President); and Scott Todnem (2019 SHAPE America National Health Education Teacher of the Year).

Here are some of the great ideas, tips and resources that were shared by our #SHAPEHealthEd Twitter Chat panelists and chat participants. While some tips may not be relevant now that so many schools have been closed due to COVID-19, they will definitely be helpful once the crisis ends.

Q1: According to the American Federation of Teachers, 61% of teachers reported that their jobs were always/often stressful and 58% cited poor mental health as a result of that stress. What does it mean to be burned out?

  • I believe that burnout occurs the moment a teacher comes to school feeling more defeated than successful, more stressed than excited, more tired than patient.
  • When I think of burnout, I think of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. The “job” might not be the only source of burnout. It may occur because one is “burning the candle at both ends!”
  • Burned out in the sense of demoralization means realizing you’ll never meet expectations of the educational system, or you’ll never get the proper support.
  • Burnout for me is when I’m neglecting my own self-care to provide for my job. This comes from too many responsibilities and not enough time in the day. It feels like teachers are constantly told to do more, but never with more time to do it.
  • Great teachers often feel “punished” with higher demand. Effective + leadership + class management = more workload. Difficult students are put in their classes. Good teachers are asked to lead staff development, clubs, sports, extras. Supervision gets added. It piles up!
A person laying on a rock next to a body of water

Q2: Why so many teachers leave the profession is one of the most often discussed topics in education. What do you feel are some of the major reasons for teacher demoralization?

  • People refer to education as a “noble” profession, but too often teachers are challenged by limited resources/support. Education needs to be brought into balance with how people view it and if it is truly “noble,” it must be more respected and supported.
  • The first time I tried teaching, I left the profession after 3 years, feeling like I was swimming upstream — alone. It wasn’t until I found a school that prioritized collaboration that I fell in love with teaching again.
  • Teachers feel discouraged when they see a lack of understanding or respect for their content area and the contributions it makes to children.
  • A big reason is that we no longer can “just teach.” We are spread so thin with so many other responsibilities that it is impossible to focus on lesson planning, building relationships with students, advocating for the health of our students, etc.
  • Morale of a school is huge. Climate/culture needs to involve teacher well-being. It can be rare for teachers to be complimented. We don’t need it overdone, and definitely not lip service, but every human looks for validation to continue an endeavor.

Q3: What dimension(s) of wellness are most challenging for you to maintain in your school day/week, etc? Please explain.

  • Physical wellness. When you’re constantly trying to think about/put others first, your health sometimes comes last. I often don’t have time to do the activities I most enjoy — like dancing in my living room!
  • I struggle with balance/mental health. I’m a teacher and a mom of three involved kiddos, so when the school day is over, I have a second job … as a mom. I have to remind myself that it’s okay that I don’t finish my schoolwork.
  • Sleep/mental health. My body has adjusted to functioning on little sleep which catches up with me every Friday. I refuse to work on schoolwork while my kids are awake, which forces me to stay up late creating lesson plans and grading papers.
  • Emotional health. Sometimes being a teacher is like being a sponge, but you’re not just soaking up ideas and insight from your students, you’re also absorbing their emotions — be it good, bad, or ugly. It’s difficult to pry your mind away from the challenges your students are facing in their lives and nearly impossible to compartmentalize teaching them from being that person they can rely on for support.
  • Emotional health. Many times I have a hard time switching gears between school and home. I sometimes take my students’ challenges home with me because I care about my students a lot.
March Essentials Chart Infographic

Image Credit: The Essentials of Teaching Health Education

Q4: Administrators want great teachers to enter, stay and thrive in the profession — for themselves, their students and their communities. What actions do you take to maintain your wellness? At work/home?

  • I’ve been on and off with a therapist for a decade or more. I’m also talking about it more openly, even though it feels uncomfortable, because it’s really important to normalize mental health.
  • Exercise. I go to my CrossFit classes 5-6 days a week. It’s my stress reliever and it makes me happy. I am a bookworm. I try to read 20 minutes before bed every night. Don’t sweat the small stuff — especially at school.
  • After hard days you have to mentally separate yourself from the job. Teaching is a part of you, but it shouldn’t consume you. It’s not your identity. Some days I remind myself that once I leave school, I have to leave the mental space that it can take up.
  • I attempt to do all schoolwork at school. Grading stays there, if at all possible. This helps me be present at home with family, although that is still a struggle because I do other tasks — media, writing, etc. I also use downtime with a book or Netflix before bed.
  • I also connect with other outstanding #educators on here, through Facebook, or at conferences. Why re-invent the wheel? Getting awesome lessons or ideas from other #health educators can help anyone cope with stress!
Ten Reasons why every teacher needs a P L N infographic

Q5: Why is modeling and managing your self-care important to your students? What health skills do you practice that can be transferred into the classroom?

  • We often underestimate our impact as a role model for our kids. They need to see teachers who are optimistic, enthusiastic and passionate about what they do. We need to paint a picture of ourselves that students want to emulate and look up to.
  • I tell students that mental health is HUGE! If mental health isn’t where it needs to be, it affects all dimensions of health. I’m constantly laughing at myself over the stuff I say and do in class. My students see that it is OK to just laugh instead of getting upset over something.
  • ADVOCACY! Asking for help (self-advocacy) is a really difficult skill for students. I vocalize any time that I may be asking another teacher for help with something and I talk to students about my own ways of getting help to cope with stress and illness, etc.
  • Students feed off our energy! In order for me to generate energy, I need to move, exercise, walk the dog, take my son to the park. I feel that movement is a great way to get the gears in my students’ minds working, so I arrange my classroom and lessons around mobility.
  • Modeling self-management makes for easy, relatable examples in health class. I show those skills through journaling, time checklists, and stories.
  • Decision making and goal setting can also be modeled for self-care. I use this information for a two-week project.
March S.M.A.R.T. Infographic

Q6: Do you have any suggestions or tips on what can provide you a “wellness boost” to get through the longer parts of the school year? What can an educator do to stay fresh?

  • Taking on a student-centered, school-wide project always gave me a huge boost. The more I could put myself, my students and my program out there for those to see — always an energizer for me.
  • Take time off! Personal days can help, but also each week or even every day, get out of the classroom. Leave school to see the sun. If you have time, maybe even a quick drive to your favorite lunch spot. Simple — to help feel like you’re not stuck in school!
  • Use a mental health day. You sometimes need a day off to make it through a long stretch. Our state is pushing legislation to allow students to use that as a legitimate excuse for missing school and classifying it as a sick day. Why not teachers?
  • Find a walking buddy on your planning period. Get another teacher and walk outside your building or even the halls for 10-20 minutes. It will give you adult conversation as well as give you a break at school.
  • I’m always on a search for new lessons or experiential activities for my students. Sometimes I just need an idea and then I create. Connecting with teachers via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. Students enjoy these activities and that can provide the “boost” we all need!
  • Attend conferences! I find the energy from other educators is contagious.
  • Do your best to make the classroom a place you want to be. Decorate if possible. Making it a second home helps everyone’s mood. Also, socialize with colleagues! Find time during the day or on a Friday after work to vent, talk shop, or just hang out.

Q7: What are some of the steps schools can take to help the remoralization process?

  • Schools and administrators need to provide opportunities for teachers to share their craft with each other, to have time to plan together, discuss strategies around particular students, and to learn together in a culture that promotes and supports teacher growth.
  • Make teachers feel appreciated. Go into a classroom when it’s not an observation. Help build the culture by having faculty luncheons throughout the school year. Say thank you and be positive!
  • Foster an environment where teachers can learn from each other and prioritize continuing education. Have internal PD or create a program where guest teachers cover teachers’ classes so they can observe others in the building, or travel to other schools to observe.
  • Our principal and assistant came through the other day with a coffee/hot chocolate cart to put a smile on our faces. This was such a nice effort and well-appreciated!
  • Look to involve some social and emotional learning practices for staff during institute days and in-service. Put health education skills and SEL into practice for faculty! Make morale just as important as scope and sequence.

Q8: Does your school have a school-based employee wellness program? Maybe other teacher/staff groups meet to work on self-care?

  • We do have a wellness program, as well as a call line for employee assistance — mental health and other needs. Fundraisers include running clubs for the school and district. From time to time, small groups meet to talk self-care and goals, and to hold each other accountable.
  • In recent years we’ve looked into more staff self-care. The lounge has been changed/updated for a good meeting place. I presented mindfulness basics to faculty. In-services have included more stress relief and teaming for mental and social health.
  • Yes! A partnership was created between the insurance company for the district and the district. We had 5k trainings which culminated in the county 5k. Also, my school put on workouts for teachers, and there were “points” you could earn via steps to redeem for prizes.
  • To help with mental health, we have a faculty book club that meets every two months. We bring in snacks to share at book club meetings. The genre of the book changes each month.
  • One of my greatest memories from teaching HS health and physical education was doing a twice-a-week after-school step class with staff. We had a blast and we even made T-shirts!

Many thanks to all the teachers who shared their knowledge and resources on this Twitter Chat! To learn more about future chats, log onto Twitter and follow the hashtag #SHAPEHealthEd!

Additional Resources

Chad Dauphin

Chad Dauphin is a health educator at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, where he served as associate athletic director from 2006-2017. He has presented at several state and national conferences on the topics of health education and athletics and served on the SHAPE America Health Education Council. Chad is currently chair of the #SHAPEHealthEd Twitter Chat task force. He can be reached at cdauphin@d125.org